Social Experiments in Retail Sexism

Let’s try a social experiment together.

First, head over to iStockphoto. Now, click on the search field and plug in the term “man shopping.” When I tried this little experiment, the site spat out slightly more than 17,000 results.

But here’s where it gets fun. If you run a search for “woman shopping,” you should get back a little less than 54,000 results.


For those of you playing the home game, that’s a 218 percent increase over “man shopping.” So we're naturally led to one of several conclusions: Either women outnumber men three to one, women are 218 percent more likely to shop than men, or our gender stereotypes are still categorically fucked.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a problem inherent to iStockphoto, which is simply a repository for stock photos (and it’s one of many similar sites). Nor is this the fault of the photographers who posted on the site. The problem lies in the demand for those photos, and the demand is set by people who have a death grip on misguided clichés.

And the further we dig into the world of retail, the worse it gets.

 A lot of times, if not most of the time, most people will use a gender-neutral pronoun to describe hypothetical characters. Think along the lines of “they,” “their,” etc., as in "the way to understand your customer is to collect their information." Sure, this is grammatically incorrect, technically speaking (you should be collecting "his" or "her" information) but writing in such a way helps avoid those sticky situations when assigning a gender makes us feel (rightfully) queasy. Typically, this less-correct method of writing does a damn fine job of eliminating the absolutely god awful use of “s/he" and other nonsensical patch-jobs we've devised to fix holes in the English language.

Just as often though, when a given writer commits to a gender specific pronoun—“he” or “she”—s/he tends to stick with his/her own gender. Being male, for example, I might write a sentence like, “if a student graduates college, he is more likely to get a job.” Not all students are male, but I am, so I have a tendency to side with the penis varietal. 

I know what you’re thinking: “Gee, Colin. That’s an awfully sexist way to write, and clearly false because there aren't any jobs for college students.”

You’re correct on both accounts, anonymous critic, but that's most often the way people write. I don’t have much data to back this up—actually, I have no data—but I’d venture that most people agree with my observation.

It’s for that very reason that it makes one take pause when the pronouns bend toward women. You just don’t see it, and the last place you'd expect to encounter forward-thinking gender roles is in retail.

Retail, however, is exactly where you will most encounter the "shes" and "hers" in the world. In fact, the Internet is absolutely lousy with retail blogs that use this type of language.

Before you go lauding the progressive stance of retail, stop for a moment and think back to those search results. 

Admittedly, when I first noticed this phenomenon, I had to admire the seemingly progressive approach by these bloggers. But the more I thought about it, the more it nagged at me, and the more it nagged at me the more I realized that the reason many of these blogs (probably) insert female pronouns, is because the typical image of a shopper—at least, in the eyes of modern retail—comes equipped with a vagina, 24 hours per day to kill, and her husband's money to blow.

Not convinced? Well consider the following quote from this recent article, written by a man, in a prominent retail blog:

“The shopper viewing a recipe on her smartphone as she shops for groceries wants to see the list of ingredients, and that's what she'll see when accessing on her phone.”

Thank god. Finally, she has an easy way to access recipes while in the store, ensuring that there’s enough time to get home, prepare a meal, and still have time to breast feed a perfect, pink, suburban baby. Amirite fellas?

This is the type of passive sexism, based on archaic gender roles, that simply refuses to die. Is it Valentine’s Day? Well guys, make sure you plant a fat diamond somewhere on your lady if you ever want to get laid again. Father’s Day? Just remember that all men love anything that drills things, cuts things, or lights things on fire—those who don't are, in fact, incapable of impregnating a woman and therefore not your real father.

Maybe I'm wrong—and I kind of hope that I am. But if I'm write on this particular assumption—and I probably am—it may just mean that real, engraved-in-the-bone sexism hasn't gone anywhere, it's just getting sneakier.

Archie Bunker would be proud.